Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

Reading Ireland 2021

During March every year Cathy at 746 Books runs a Reading Ireland Month, inviting other readers to participate, so it’s a good time to check what’s sitting on the shelf, to read in the company of others on something of a common theme.

I’m already participating in her year long Brian Moore at 100 ReadAlong and when Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s nonfiction book A Ghost in the Throat became my Outstanding Read of 2021, I began to seek out more titles by Irish Women Writers.

So I can also recommend my recent reads by Sara Baume, her beautiful work of creative nonfiction Handiwork that tracks the course of a year as she writes and sculpts small birds and vainly attempts to lure a few passing migratory species into her small garden. So entranced by her words, I ventured into her fiction and loved Spill Wither Falter Simmer and still have one more, A Line Made By Walking to read.

This week the focus was on short stories, so I chose to read Tangleweed and Brine and next week nonfiction, so I have two titles lined up Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, which I am currently reading and Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh a story of a wild Ireland, a mix of memoir, nature writing and social history, which looks very promising.

Disruptive Feminist Retellings of Classic Fairy Tales

I picked up Deirdre Sullivan’s two books for a change of genre and due to the intrigue of what her work promised. In 2020 I read Savage Her Reply a retelling of the Children of Lir, a fairy tale I wasn’t familiar with, but thoroughly enjoyed, not just the storytelling but the use of calligrams, poems and the language of Ogham, morsels on the side but subjects that a reader can get quite carried away with, inspiring one’s own creativity, as I found out, collecting small branches, twigs and leaves to adorn the word poems.

Tangleweed and Brine

Tangleweed and BrineWhile Savage Her Reply was a long version of just one tale, in Tangleweed and Brine, we have an entire collection, cleverly separated into seven tangled tales of earth, and six salty tales of water. They can be dipped in and out of and are best read over a period of time, because they demand our attention, require reflection and strip the old tales of their illusory inclinations, suggesting quite frankly what really was going on with Red Riding Hood and her fellow heroines.

It helps to be familiar with the tales before reading, because they aren’t told as they might be to a child. These stories are narrated by the author, often in the second person “you” voice, acknowledging and bearing witness to our heroine, recounting what she experienced back to her and to us, the reader – we who thought we knew, because you know, we read those stories or had them read to us – we now sit back and read in shock, the harsh reality of these women’s lives. Sullivan is paying homage, setting the record straight, we must not turn away. No longer.

So which tales are twisted, those that glorified these heroines lives and made us believe in Prince Charming, bad witches and vicious wolves or these tales that tell of brave and resilient heroines, surviving betrayals, neglect, judgement, cruelty, abandonment and finally have their stories told by the courageous, intuitive teacher, seer, Ms Sullivan.

Part One – Tangleweed

Slippershod (Cinderella)

Cast thoughts aside of which slipper she wears and what she dreams of, Cinderella has a different destiny and the memory of a truer love, she is resourceful and retains her inner self-worth; She is patient and knows when to act.

“Stretching on the bed, with soft bread in your mouth, the taste of butter, you wonder what they are doing at the ball. Who the prince will dance with. The love he’ll choose, the girls he will discard. There’s nothing gentle in that kind of power. You close your eyes. There is a different world. Where people do things, make things. Carve them out. You breathe the thick, soft air. It smells of hops. You smile and square your shoulders. Sometimes love is something more like rage. It makes you fight. You feel the future, wide and bright around you, kicking in your gut as though a child. The night spread wide and you have flown, you’ve flown.”

The Woodcutter’s Bride (Red Riding Hood)

Tangleweed and Brine Deirdre SullivanThis tale can be told by the title and beautiful illustration by Karen Vaughan. There is one picture for every story and within them often lurk clues. As I read the opening paragraphs and saw the illustration, the reality of who really was the wolf, the colour of that cape, hit me like a punch. The horror of those trophies. 

“When I was a small girl something happened to me in the forest. I can’t recall exactly what it was. It’s hard to trust tales from the lips of grandmothers; they come out wrong, too dirty or too clean. Since then I have not felt the same about the forest, I liked it once I think or I think I think. It’s beautiful but on its inky edges  something stirs to fidget with my gut. It’s getting dark; my husband will be home soon. I bite down on my lips to make them red.

Come Live Here and Be Loved (Rapunzel)

“Your husband’s face afraid when you inform him. A happy sort of fear.  To grow a person is no little thing. It isn’t like a turnip or a spud. It’s not so simple, weaving vein and bone. Your sense of smell wolf-sharp and, oh, the hunger. You ache with it.  It gnaws at you, untrammelled through your gut. The pang of it so sharp, like teeth, like fury. A starving ache that cannot be suppressed.”

You Shall Not Suffer (Hansel and Gretel)

She lives in a world that discards the weak easily, she prefers to save lives, to nurture, or at least try to save them. She doesn’t fit the mould of what is expected, so she chooses another way, another life, a way to be herself, a house in the woods. When they abandon their litters now, they blame the witch in the woods, yet still they come to her for help, seek her healing powers.

“You grew up soft, but still you learned to hide it. Piece by piece. The world’s not built for soft and sturdy things. It likes its soft thing small and white, defenceless. Princesses in castles. Maidens waiting for the perfect sword. You grew up soft, and piece by wounded piece you built a carapace around your body. Humans are peculiar little things.

Sister Fair (Fair, Brown and Trembling)

This is an Irish fairy tale of three sisters, that was unknown to me, one of jealousy, betrayal and redemption.

“It’s not about being sensible, or strong. It’s not about being kind. It’s not about the  soft touch and the kind heart.  Beauty and a womb. That’s all you are.”

Ash Pale (Snow White)

coniferous trees covered with snow in sunny winter day

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

This story turns the classic tale on its head and Snow White uses skills Her mother taught her to ensure she isn’t dispossessed of her place, when her father remarries. 

“You look at her the same way you always did. Perhaps a little kinder. Now that she’s disappearing. Not a threat. You can see her folding into herself like crumpled parchment. Changing who she is to please him.”


Part Two – Brine

Consume Or Be Consumed (A Little Mermaid)

This was actually the first tale I read, especially after finishing Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters in which we are led to believe that one of the protagonists is seduced by a siren. Here the mermaid spends time among humans and sees what it is to be a woman, the sacrifice.

“These things with half of you on pairs of legs. They don’t look right.  There’s something off about it.  You often stare. Sometimes you close your eyes. So many of them. So much of this world.

On land, a woman doesn’t matter much.  You miss it. Or you used to. Your skin is slightly tinged with subtle blue.  They think that makes you lady-like. The colour of a person matters here. Who were you once, and what was done to you. They speculate. A quiet thing is often seen as docile. They say their secrets, spew out all their bile as you sit silently beside the window. Staring at the waters, lapping out. Everything is still here, always, always. And it should move. You long for it to move.”

Doing Well (The Frog Prince)

woman wearing crown holding frog figurine

Photo: Susanne JutzelerPexels.com

A terrible tale of a princess born into bondage, to a frog, she has no choice, no say, no rights. She belongs to this slimy amphibian and must do his bidding, worse than a slave.

“You have been marked from birth for just this purpose. Cloistered with the others. Secret spaces deep within this space where girls are trained. But there are passageways to keep you safe.”

The Tender Weight (Bluebeard)

Originally a French folktale, this story is given a different twist, though the inevitability of its outcome remains. A story of repetitions, of a curse, of an attempt to break it, of an unfounded reputation, a desire to break free.

“You do not have to ask him what he did.  You know that it was nothing. There doesn’t have to be a reason here The world will steal what little crumbs you grasp. The loves you have can die and be reborn.The memory of pain will cling. Will cling. And you will never let yourself forget. That this has happened.”

Riverbed (Donkeyskin)

two brown donkeys

Photo by chris carroll on Pexels.com

Another French fairytale originally from 1695, in which a daughter has to resort to extremes to protect herself from her father’s indecorous intentions. In this retelling,rather than hide and wait for him to come to his senses and she retain her good virtue, the young woman is uncompromising, will time her strike, will be as effective and more virtuous in her rule. And pay homage to the innocnet hard-working, long-suffering donkey.

“There is a soft rebellion to a donkey. It is a working thing. But it resents. I am fond of this. When I am cold or lonely in the castle. When I’m afraid, I often find myself around the stables, stroking them as long as they permit. Which is a goodly time. They trust me now. I earned it. Growing up, and being gentle, kind.”

The Little Gift (The Goose Girl)

Another from the Brothers Grimm collection, originally this story tells the tale of a maid servant who turns on her princess when they are travelling and forces her to swap places, making an oath never to tell. The princess becomes the maid who cares for the geese, until the prince learns of what took place and tricks the false princess into choosing her punishment. In the retelling, we learn whose idea it was to change places, the reneging on a promise, betrayal. What some will do for love, the selfishness of the entitled.

“A goose can try its best to be a swan. Conceal the ruddy beak, the grating honk. But swans as geese? The air cries out to them. It’s not enough. They want clean sheets and gold. The softer life. And when I visit and stroke her face, I see her clear blue eyes upon my jewels. She does not see their weight, only their lustre. She knows they should be hers. She wants them back.”

Beauty and the  Board (Beauty and the Beast)

The death of the mother leaves Beauty vulnerable, but there is a presence she can contact through the board, invite in for her protection, to deal with the ever present danger. She becomes they.

“You are a thing. A beast without a home. I know that, how it feels. And I would have you share a place in me.”

Further Reading

Article: What Will Build and Break a Girl: Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

Tangleweed and Brine is a book about women within fairy-tales. And their internal lives, as they realise their place in the world. How trapped they are. Some of them rebel, and some retreat. I wanted to write about different sorts of women, quiet ones and strong ones, women with different shaped bodies, different shaped brains. I wanted to take the stories of my childhood, and put the things we learn early on into a world where marrying a stranger is seen as a happy ending, and pride is something women shouldn’t feel.


The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

Having recently read another novel without realising it was of the gothic genre, I think I’ve gone and done it again, this time, a contemporary Belfast gothic novel, because right from the first chapter, there is the overwhelming sense of something sinister going to happen, and it’s not the series of summer fires that are plaguing the city though they are equally troubling. I discovered having finished the book that Jan Carson is also a fan of absurdist fiction. Another clue.

Contemporary Irish Fiction Empathy EU Prize for LiteratureIn that first chapter we meet a father, Jonathan, who has a strange perception of his baby daughter, who he is caring for alone. He desperately wants to care for her, but he feels that part of his role in doing that is to remove the aspect of her that she has inherited from her mother, who he believes is a siren.

His own childhood was one of being provided for, but unloved, his parents (who never wanted children or grandchildren) abandoning him at the age of 16 to a boarding school, leaving the country. He becomes a Doctor, and of no surprise, lacks any form of empathy.

We meet Sammy, also a father, an ex loyalist paramilitary, who is becoming increasingly anxious, having reason to suspect that his son Mark, who lives in their attic and rarely comes out, may be involved in sinister activities, fearing he has inherited his own thirst for violence, a tendency he had no control over in youth and even today, has to quell the feeling inside.

I found the depictions of both these men terrifying, both are planning some kind of intervention and up until the last pages, we can’t quite believe that they may follow through, and they too wrestle with their instinct and question, whether they ought to proceed.

Then there is the background of a hot summer and the approach of the Orange parades of the Eleventh Night on every 12th of July, an Ulster Protestant tradition where large, towering bonfires are lit, accompanied by street parties and loyalist marching bands.

The bonfires are lit to celebrate (1688) the victory of Protestant King William (Billy) of Orange over Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. – Wikipedia

When the rain finally arrives, people begin to smile, there are fewer angry people on the streets, they no longer have the numbers for a decent riot, the air of festivity is extinguished. Protesting soon makes way for the football season.

This is how it has been in Belfast every summer since the Agreement. The same hot anger rises at the end of June and and goes stamping up and down the little streets. Stamping and shouting and raising Cain all the way through July until, by August’s end, the energy’s gone right out of it.

My Truth is Not Your Truth

And the various versions and perceptions of truth and history that exist, depending on who is doing the telling, where they live, what day it is, demonstrated in this opening chapter This is Belfast.

This is Belfast. This is not Belfast.
Better to avoid calling anything a spade in this city. Better to avoid names and places, dates and second names. In this city names are like points on a map or words worked in ink. They are trying too hard to pass for truth. In this city truth is a circle from one side and a square from the other. It is possible to go blind staring at the shape of it. Even now, sixteen years after the Troubles, it is much safer to stand back and say with conviction, ‘It all looks the same to me.’

And following this are two paragraphs, one that begins with ‘The Troubles are over now’ and the other begins with ‘The Troubles have only just begun.’

Deidre Sullivan Tangleweed and Brine Jan Carson The Fire Starters

Sirens from Deidre Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine

Jonathan (Dr Murray) is obsessed with silencing his daughter, and even employs a deaf nanny to look after her. She is a loving, nurturing soul, providing one of the few notes of relief in an otherwise tense narrative, as these men ponder their responsibility as fathers and fear of what their children may become.

There is a third brief narrative, an omniscient voice that shares the story of a few of the Unfortunate Children of Belfast, children of parents who belong to a support group, that Jonathan attends once, they are children born with deformities and powers and it is here, that I realise there is an element of magic realism in this tale, that perhaps his perception of his daughter as a siren isn’t an aspect of his own mental health problem.

The novel is a blend of politically charged social and magic realism, though it feels realistic in its reading; dealing with the trauma of legacy’s, a parent’s legacy to a child and the community’s complicated legacy of the political troubles of Northern Ireland. It is set in East Belfast, where the author lives and from listening to the interview, I learn that she is an accomplished eavesdropper, that many of the words in these pages have been inspired by overheard conversations.

On Developing Empathy for Those Living Segregated Lives

Interested to understand the motivation behind the novel, I listened to an excellent interview with Nicky Bull in which she shares something of her role as a community arts facilitator and the role this can play in healing rifts, bringing people together, using the creative process to help develop empathy, she talks about the ability of storytelling to help develop this.

The community arts sector in Northern Ireland has played a huge role in the peace and reconciliation process. Primarily it brings people from both communities together into a shared space but I also think it has also taught people soft skills that have been missing from Northern Irish culture.

It’s very, very hard for people here to practice empathy because quite often we grow up segregated, so how are you supposed to understand what life is like if you don’t have any friends who aren’t from the same background as you, the skill system is still largely segregated,and government housing and things.

So these conversations around learning how to empathise, which I think the creative act, particularly writing fiction, you’re putting yourself in the shoes of another character, even when you read, it’s an act of empathy, those skills can be taught and then transferred into the social realms that we’re working in Northern Ireland at the moment, that people can imagine a life that isn’t theirs, it’s much more difficult to hate and to segregate when you have the ability to empathise with other people.

It’s an incredible and deeply disturbing novel, yet despite the discomfort I learned a lot from reading it and especially from taking the opportunity to listen to the author speak, that helped me understand the motivation behind it and that incredible candour around the very real problem of how the creation of segregated community’s causes a lack empathy and how the creative arts can help provide a practical humanist solution.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and #ReadingIrelandMonth21, have you read a good Irish book this month?